Stanza 1 The first line of the first stanza begins “so the earshell beseeches the eye / to find the sounds it would lose, / and the eye prays that flying words / will be trapped in the amber of print.” Here, the ear becomes like the shell whose “silence wants to be sound.” Both the shell and the ear are keepers of sound. The ear’s sounds, or the poetry it hears, are like the silence within the shell. It is not silence. It is a sound wanting to be heard. The ear feels an urgency, as indicated by the word “beseeches,” to covet sound and to share in the responsibility of retaining and sharing what it hears. Fearing that it might fail to hold onto, lose, or forget what it hears, the ear requests help from the eye. In turn, the eye hopes that the “amber of print” will help it permanently preserve the words it sees. Van Duyn uses the image of amber in the final line because it is a fossilized resin produced by a pine tree. As a fossil, amber, like the published works of writers, will last well into the future. In this opening stanza, Van Duyn highlights the idea that the only way to secure the safe transmission of poetry to future generations is to collect and publish it. Poetry that is simply heard may be lost, just as “flying words,” or poetry that is scattered and uncollected, may be lost as well.
Stanza 2 Van Duyn continues in the second stanza with “Like a pine the man who will print / what plays through his needle-branched ear / towers, his resin wraps words / and the resonant shape of their sound / that a dry heart has to let loose.” Van Duyn figures Harry Ford as a pine tree and thus makes him the source of the “amber of print” mentioned in the previous stanza. Just as amber comes from a pine tree, so published words come from Ford. He takes what he hears from the hearts of poets who are compelled to share their life experiences, opinions, feelings, and thoughts and preserves them in a permanent record, a book, which is not mistakenly made of paper, another by-product of a tree. Van Duyn describes Ford’s ear as “needle-branched,” suggesting that it is like the branches and needles on a tree. Tree branches and needles are the visual elements on a tree that prove its life. Branches grow as trees age, and their needles are evergreen. In a similar way, Ford’s ear confirms life—in this case, the lives that the poets he publishes present through their work. Like the shell, his ear is both the keeper of sound and the vehicle through which that silent sound is shared. He hears their poetry, edits it, and publishes it so that it can be enjoyed by others.
Giving Ford more credit than simply being a historian or scribe, Van Duyn concludes the stanza with “He will pass through art’s strict needle’s eye.” Whereas “eye” in the first stanza referred to the human eye, it is used here in conjunction with needle and thus evokes the image of the sewing needle and the eye through which thread is passed for sewing. If Ford is to pass through this eye, then he becomes like the thread, that which physically connects pieces of fabric. Thus, in addition to giving Ford accolades for preserving poetry for posterity, Van Duyn commends him for the unique ways in which he puts together the tapestry of his writers’ art.
Stanza 3 In...
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the third stanza, Van Duyn continues, “When the poem arrives at the eye / of the hurricane, hush of print / retrieves what the blind wind would lose.” Using the images of the wind and a hurricane, Van Duyn again alludes to the way in which poetry can be scattered or destroyed. Thankfully, the “hush of print” can save it from being lost or ruined. She concludes that once poetry is published, “the heart becomes all ear / and the deafmute world hears the sound / of its own green, resplendent words.” When Van Duyn says that “the heart becomes all ear,” she refers readers to the “earshell” and “needle-branched ear” images that appeared in the first two stanzas. By circling the reader back to these two images, she conveys the notion that once one’s writing is formally put into print, the heart, like the earshell or conch shell, is emptied and free to take in new life and to share its sounds with those who will listen. In sharing those sounds, or poetry, the heart becomes like the “needle-branched ear,” which continues to be evergreen, confirming life. Through the writing of poets, the “deaf-mute world,” or those who do not hear and speak about life like poets and their editors do, are able to hear about their own lives.
For Van Duyn, poetry divorced from life has no value. In stanza 4 she says, “Who gives up the world for words / gives creation a bad black eye / in uncoupling sense and sound.” In “uncoupling sense and sound,” one separates feeling, intuition, wisdom, and meaning from poetry and in doing so removes the perceptions and opinions about life that Van Duyn sees as an integral part of poetics. Sound or poetry that is absent of such qualities lacks depth and consciousness and is an insult to the art of poetry writing.
Stanza 4 Introducing “Detective Time” in the fourth stanza, Van Duyn suggests that the separation of “sense and sound” is just one danger poetry faces. With the line “Detective Time takes his voiceprint, which ends behind bars,” Van Duyn conjures the image of a police detective putting someone in jail. In this case, “Detective Time” seems to take its own voice prisoner. This line can be read metaphorically to mean that, as time passes, the unique experiences of those living in that time are permanently locked away. They are put behind bars and are thus unable to communicate with the outside world. Without the help of editors like Ford, such accounts would be lost for good. Ironically, Van Duyn finishes the stanza with “Nature’s ear knows it was little to lose.” For nature, the loss of one voice seems minor. One would think that Van Duyn would disagree with this perspective. Her use of the word “voiceprint,” which indicates that the voice is unique, and thus valuable, suggests that such a loss would be great. Yet, by placing time and nature in the same stanza, Van Duyn raises ideas about eternity and life’s natural cycles. In the context of an eternal cycle of birth, life, and death, one person’s story does indeed seem “little to lose” because that person’s experience will likely be reflected in the universal story of life that everyone experiences. Like the conch shell, nature’s ear tells a collective story about the place from which it came, not the individual story of the shell’s individual inhabitant.
Stanza 5 In stanza 5, Van Duyn turns to the topic of the relationship between poets and Ford. She describes him as having “child-cheeks” and an “Orphic ear.” “Child-cheeks” perhaps pertain to his youthful appearance, and “Orphic ear” refers to his experience as a poetry editor. In Greek mythology, Orpheus is a poet and musician whose poetic and musical talents convinced Pluto and Persephone to free his wife from Hades. Van Duyn credits Ford with an “Orphic ear” and thus implies respect for his poetic skills. Implicit in this respect is a trust for his editorial input about poetry. She says, “The heart must be mud-mum,” or silent, or it might “lose face.” One way to read this is that, at some point, poets must quiet their hearts and stop producing the sounds of poetry, or writing, or they run the risk of embarrassing themselves. If they ceased to write, they would then be able to open their hearts to the editorial suggestions offered by Ford’s “indelible imprint.” In making his mark on their work, Ford ensures that readers can better understand it. Van Duyn continues, “Love’s incoherence is sound,” meaning that the feelings of the heart do not always make sense when they are expressed as sound, or as poetry. Ford is a “god without words,” and in the silence afforded by the writing and editing process, Van Duyn seems to suggest that he skillfully ensures the coherence of the poet’s work.
Stanza 6 In the sixth stanza, Van Duyn wonders if there is any sound that will prevent time from destroying the writing of poets. She asks, “In a deathly silence, what sound / amends Time’s law that we lose?” Her answer is “That memoir read from fine print.” Ultimately, Van Duyn suggests that the sound of poetry read aloud saves the art from destruction. Sight and sound work together to preserve poetry that was created from the musings of the heart, or “love’s beautiful babble.” For Van Duyn, the art of poetry has human value. It “fixes the world I-to-eye,” meaning that it makes the world right, by bringing the self into focus for the world to see. Through poetry, people can read about the things of life, theirs and others. Reciprocally, these lives are the fodder for poetry. It is no mistake that Van Duyn selected “Memoir” as the title of this work. To her, poetry itself is a memoir, something that recounts the stories of people’s lives. These stories are the breath that “beats the drum of our ear,” meaning that they are the inspiration and the heart that give the ear something to hear and in turn, like the conch, something to share.
Stanza 7 In poetic terminology, the final stanza is called an envoy (or envoi), which, according to The Princeton Handbook of Poetic Terms, is “a short concluding stanza” that serves “as a pithy summing-up of the poem.” The seventh stanza reads: “Sound ear and sound eye keep in print / any rhyme the world makes with its words / that the heart cannot bear to lose.” “Memoir” is a tribute to Van Duyn’s editor, Harry Ford. She dedicates the work to him and proceeds to applaud his knowledge and experience as an editor who publishes the heartfelt work of poets. Though the closing stanza is relatively easy to understand, Van Duyn presents this same idea in the preceding six stanzas in a more complicated manner.
“Memoir” begins, “As the conch tells the human ear / silence wants to be sound.” This opening phrase conjures the image of a person holding a shell to his or her ear to listen to the sound of the ocean that emanates from within its empty hollow. This phrase makes an ironic association between silence and sound. Instead of being silent, the shell, which is devoid of life, speaks the sounds of the place from which it came and the place in which it was inhabited by life. This image can be likened to that of the “dry heart” that Van Duyn mentions in the next stanza. Both the heart and the shell symbolically speak the sounds, or words, of their past experience and both want to be heard or perhaps, in the case of the heart, understood or remembered.